A sound now sweet

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Chef August Sander, working hard and proud of it.

About fifteen years ago I was asked by Dan Blumenthal to help cook at the March of Dimes Star Chef event. Star Chefs is a gala that features a dozen or so chefs cooking signature dishes and participating in a culinary auction. At the time, I was not in the foodservice business. I was an investment banker, but secretly (or not so secretly, depending on whom you ask) wanted to be a cook.

I was honored that Dan has asked me to help him and even more excited that we were serving one of my dishes, Sauteed Shrimp with Chili Oil and Toasted Sesame Seeds. I was dressed in a clean, white chef’s coat and I was getting to play with the big boys. While pushing a cart through the service corridor of the Marriott hotel, a young man in a Marriott uniform passed me and made the simple, offhand remark, “Hi Chef.”

I felt funny when he said it…almost as if I didn’t deserve the recognition. For a split second I thought about stopping the guy and explaining to him that I wasn’t REALLY a chef, that I was a guy in chef’s clothes who was helping out the REAL chef upstairs. I felt like I needed to apologize. When I was younger, my family had a home in New Orleans. In the morning, from the balcony I would watch the chefs in their clean white coats walking together down Royal street and peeling off  one or two at a time and ducking into the alleyways that led to their kitchens. When I was mistaken for a chef that night I thought of those journeyman cooks and what they would think about a guy who changed out of his finely tailored suit and donned “the whites” for one night of not-so-stressful cooking. I could hear them snicker.

The event went off without a hitch. People loved the food and at the end of the night, Dan was pres
ented with a new chef’s coat as a “thank you” gift for participating in the event. While we were packing up the gear, Dan tossed me the coat and said “You want this? I got a million of them.”

I played it off like it wasn’t a big deal, but that coat really meant something to me. It was a gesture from someone I admired professionally. I was approval in the form of work attire. I wish I still had that coat.

I don’t know why that exchange in the hallway with the Marriott employee is still fresh in my memory, but I can see his face as clearly today as I did years ago and I can still feel my conflicting emotions of pride in a title given but not deserved and shame at being a pretender to the trade.

So much has changed since that night. After finally mustering the courage to start anew as a professional cook (in the tender dec
ade of my forties) I’ve found success in what I love. I wake up every day excited to get to my kitchen. I look at every dish that leave the pass and think to myself “Does this dish look, smell and taste like I want it to?” My work makes me so happy that I swear I would pay someone to let me do it.

This week I had a few moments that literally took my breath. Saturday night I got to cook alongside Al Sternweiler, one of the best chefs I know. He flew in from Chicago to be my guest chef for a night. The food we put out was stunning. The prep was handled by my son Stuart and the pasta was made by my son Whit. My restaurant was overbooked and people waited an hour just for a table. When they saw, smelled and ate the food, they forgot all about the wait. Dan Blumenthal came in for a late meal and literally moped his plate clean with his finger. The entire kitchen crew form Parlor Market stopped by to meet Al and share a post-shift beer. My staff reveled in my success. M
y managers nodded their approval at our success. But most of all, they all called me “chef.” And for the first time since that evening in the bowels of the Marriott I cast off any doubt that I deserved the title. There was no doubt, no shame, no nagging sense of pretense, only joy.

That word, that simple word…chef. The sound of it rings out like a symphony. I hear it perhaps a hundred times a day and it never gets old. It is the dulcet note of approval finally earned.